Monday, November 15, 2010

"Yi Yi: A One and a Two": A Film Review by film critic Darian Gier

I've always liked movies. Particularly foreign films (notice my rhetoric changed in going from 'movies' to 'films'). And more particularly good foreign films, as not all of them are good and I don't like them all simply because they are foreign. So I recently watched one, called "Yi Yi" and I decided to write a review or something of the sort.

To watch a movie, or to engage in any type of fictional art, be it a play or a novel or a story around the campfire, is always our best chance to come close to escaping the banality of "real" "everyday" life. So we long for the feeling of fantastic voyages, the rush of action and adventure, even the very sense of murder itself, or a whole host of arcane experiences that we will quite likely never know ourselves. After achieving such highs, we return to reality to view it even drabber and more colorless than before, wishing life to be more like a movie, complete with a musical score (see: "The Cable Guy"). As a result, many of us miss the drama and complexity that is "real" "everyday" life, as it does not so clearly mimic the predetermined stories of fiction we are acquainted with. This theme is perhaps at the very core of "Yi Yi: A One and a Two", a Taiwanese film from 2000 directed by Edward Yang (sadly, we lost Yang in 2007). It's topic is as ordinary as ordinary can get: a typical Taiwanese family living in contemporary Taipei. The father, a middle-class businessman, lives with his wife and their two children, a young boy and and a teenage girl, in their Taipei high rise. Their extended family is also featured, including the wife's brother, his new wife, and ailing mother. Throw in a handful of sporting characters, such as peers, coworkers, neighbors, and the father's first love that he is reunited with, and you've rounded out the cast. Again, nothing out of the ordinary.

The film begins without pomp or prologue. We glance into typical life as we know it without even hardly noticing the lens of the camera: a family marriage, meetings at work and school, the various stirrings of the family apartment. But at the same time we are presented with an explicit view of the intricacies of living mundane life, noticeably without the artificial dramatic buildup of typical fiction. We onlookers are given no pretense for how to feel each of the ups and downs of the lives of the characters as they come without typical movie timing, rhythm, or the emotional setting of an apt musical score (not that there isn't music, and good music at that). And staying true to life, we are treated to multiple viewpoints, indeed a fact of life if there ever was one, in the separate story lines of the father, his teenage daughter, and primary school-aged son.

In what is perhaps the most standard plot device of the film, the arc of the story is contained within the illness of the family's grandmother, who in the film's beginning slips into a coma and becomes contained to her bed and unconsciousness. Her situation precarious at best, the family is encouraged to talk to her as if she were awake as it may aid her recovery. Each family member's subsequent confessions to the ailing grandmother and respective troubles handling the situation is not an entirely central motif, but a mere framing point for the many interconnected events that make up the nearly three hours of film.

And henceforth we are engaged with all the drama each family member experiences, each one with their own unique trials to face within their respective points in life, yet all the while connected by family and a shared roof. Here are some brief snip-its: We are taken aback by the desperation of a jealous onlooker at the wedding and the subsequent drama as the new bride holds a grudge; the awkwardness of a young love triangle is palpable and it eventually comes to a violent ending; we glimpse the world through the innocent yet careless eyes of a child and fear for him as he is young and lacks caution and fear for himself; we enjoy the an honest business relationship that blossoms into a sincere friendship only to be soured by the self-serving actions of corporate superiors; we know the nostalgia of a past love and the sadness of self-questioning reflection on what could have been; and we even see murder committed at the hands of a very atypical culprit (not that I mean to suggest there is such a thing as a typical murderer, and I don't think Yang does either). Ultimately, the grandmother's health situation resolves and the film's many story lines each come to a more or less finite conclusion, but we are left with the sense that they will continue even without our observation. These are mere tastings which Yang treats us to: the many facets of story that is the constant interweaving of the world around us. Or life, you might call it.

Perhaps all this doesn't resemble your life and perhaps it does, but that is, I believe, the point of the film: dramatic realism. Real life, as it were, makes the best story. Events in life simply happen, they simply are, real and undetermined, fitting neither into a neat plan or a well shaped story arch of building action, climax, and resolution. The film is still a film, and does have these essential building blocks of story. But in Yi Yi Yang gives us to realism at its finest in exploring everyday life, and it turns out to make the best drama of all.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Case For Sam Martin

Gee... ummm, that's a thinker. So far, all I can really think of is that his parents are loaded and sometimes you can borrow money from him. Oh, and I guess he's in pretty good shape thanks to this Cross Fit shit. But it's obviously all for vanity because he's completely self-absorbed.

That's all I got. Anyone else, feel free to weigh in, though I doubt any one will.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Day 6: First Against the Wall

As you probably know, the thing about going out late and getting drunk is that the next morning can be difficult. And this morning, the day I was scheduled to take a tour of the Great Wall of China, proved to be a difficult morning indeed.

When I got back to the hostel the night before, in my drunken state I somehow thought it would be a good idea to set my alarm well before I was supposed to get up. The tour bus was supposed to pick us up at 7:30 or 7:45 if I recall correctly. I also opted for the additional breakfast at 7:00 served by the hostel at a hefty extra charge.

So, as I say, for some reason I thought I would set my alarm for 5:30, well before I needed to get up. I think my plan was that I would snooze for a while, and then get up when I was more ready. Getting out of bed for me is often a gradual process. Now, getting home the night before around 2:30 or so, 5:30am was only a few short hours away. And I did indeed wake up at 5:30, only to promptly turn off the cell phone's alarm and fall back asleep immediately. The next thing I knew, I awoke with a sudden rush to find that the time was 7:20. I only had 10 minutes to get ready before the bus would pick us up. I wanted to have a shower, but there was clearly no time for that, so I threw on my several layers of clothes still in a state of somewhat drunkenness, and shot out into the lobby. On my way to brush my teeth (remember the bathroom is out of my room and down the hall) I noticed a cold plate of eggs, bacon, and toast waiting on a table. I knew it must be for me, so after brushing my teeth, I quickly sat and wolfed down my breakfast in about two minutes. It wasn't that great anyway, but it was the first time in about 5 months I had had a truly western style breakfast.

By this time it was only about 7:35, so I would have basically been ready for the tour bus had it arrived on time. I looked at another tourist standing in the lobby, a bald headed English chap, and asked if he was going on the tour. He said he was. Now, at this point, I had another issue, and I'm going to be candid, forgive me if you get grossed out: the previous night we had spicy hot pot, and sometimes the little bits of pepper in the spicy hotpot water get into my food (they're really not meant to be consumed, I believe, just there to flavor what you put in the pot) and man do they give me the shits. I had already taken one shit that morning and I didn't even think I had time for that, but now, as the tour bus seemed to be late (things often are in this country), I felt I should shit again, because I needed too, and I didn't want to go through the long bus ride and day at the Wall in discomfort. So I asked the English chap to watch my stuff, and took another quick shit.

When I got out, I had another problem I was determined to solve before the bus arrived. My camera needed batteries (perhaps it actually didn't, it's just that extreme cold can make batteries dysfunctional, as we tourists would discuss later that day), and I was damn determined not to buy them at the Wall because I felt there they would be ridiculously over-priced for us dumbshit tourists. I remembered that there was a battery store I could buy them at about halfway down the block, so I shot out the door and got there. The store had just opened, and though they had batteries, the poor woman working their didn't have change for my 100 kuai bill. So together we left this woman's store unattended (bless her heart) and tried a few stores down at a sort of a convenient food shop. The woman inside this one, it being early morning, was still getting ready for the day, and was visibly still washing her face and putting on her makeup to greet the day. She didn't have change either, so together, we ran all the way back to the hostel. Finally, the front desk at the hostel changed my large bill, and I was ready to depart. Even by that point I still had to wait a few minutes for the bus. I don't think it departed until about 8:15.

As I got on the bus I met a German couple staying in the same hostel. The guy's name was Johannes, "Jo" (pronounced "Yo") for short, and the girl was named Lavinia. Jo would eventually become my man crush in Beijing, which won't surprise you if you know my hard-on for all things German. But at that point the morning was too fresh, the air too cold, and the hangover and tiredness still a stumbling block between us and true socializing at this early hour. So we all sat on the bus in relative quiet for the first hour or so, all drifting off in solitude. Plus I needed to shit again and my stomach was bothering me. Goddamn those little spicy flakes of pepper.

Approaching the wall, people got more talkative, and I started staring at the magazine being looked at by the guy behind me. The magazine was a German overview of the coming 2010 World Cup in South Africa, featuring a short introduction from Michael Ballack himself. After staring for sometime, I finally introduced myself to man who was named Mike and was from Switzerland. Our conversation was obviously from the start based in mutual fanship of soccer. A few minutes later, we were interrupted by a very nerdy and goofy American dork. I won't make too much a point of describing him, but he was really dorky, wore glasses, and had for some reason thought it was a good idea to wear shorts over his pants for warmth. That should say it all. Anyway, he had overheard me say I knew some French to Mike (as in Switzerland some speak German and some speak French), to which this kid jumped in and blurted out "OHH! Parlez-vous Francais?!" Obviously this kid had taken some French in high school and was elated with the chance at having something mutual to talk about. I responded with an awkward "Me?!" (I didn't really know what else to say that would handle it politely), and the kid quickly got the picture that he was intruding in our conservation and quickly started to beat himself up inside. I'm not sure I ever learned his name, but he figured into the day's experience.

When we finally arrived at the Wall, Mike and I were ready to be travel BFFs and climb up together. Our guide said to our group of about 20 that we could either walk up it, which takes about a half hour, or take a tram which takes 5 minutes. All of us burly westerners proudly exclaimed we wanted to walk, so we hit the trail, first walking through the small village at the base of the Wall where the usual barrage of aggressive merchants were to be found.

As we were walking through the village, the bald English guy from the hostel leaned in to speak to me discreetly and said "Isn't that American kid from Florida (the dork, who was evidently from Florida) a total dick?" I chuckled for a moment and said, "Nah, he's just a huge dork who has utterly no social skills." The English guy agreed. That poor dorky kid, I was really starting to take a sympathetic shine to him at that point.

Anyway, climbing a small mountain can be a tough endeavor for some, also if you insist on making conversation the whole way up as I did. If you are in decent shape, as I'd like to think that I am, you end up passing people stopping to rest as the trail winds on. Ones with less fortitude turned out to be the dork with shorts over his pants and Jo and Lavinia who had taken a break to smoke, I noticed. We also inevitable passed the occasional Chinese person trying to sell you something. These people were at every step of the way, offering to sell you overpriced Snickers bars (Mike bought one) and postcards at the top of the Great Wall, or violently offering to take your picture for you on your camera. Tossing aside their fervent solicitations, we reached the top of the mountain and the Wall itself in a short 25 minutes or so.

If you took the time to flip through my pictures, posted below under the title "Picture Extravaganza," you would have seen for yourself have unbelievably clear the sky was that day. There was not a cloud or trace of smog to be found. You could see miles and miles of rocky, snow capped mountains and the Great Wall which meandered over each mountainous crest and trough, drastically changing altitude and steepness. It was beautiful, a tourist's winter dream and perfect weather to snap photos. So me, Mike, Jo, Lavinia, the bald English dude, and a couple of French guys set off, hiking up the at times extremely steep stairs, and reaching the end point of the Wall. Beyond it was unrestored Wall, and we ventured into that a bit, too, but between joking with each others, snapping photos, and talking about previous travel experiences, we got our money's worth. You could even yell, as I did with my powerful and carrying voice, into the mountains and hear the echo. The French kids in particular were impressed with that.

But eventually it was time to go down. It was midday and we were hungry. To get down, we again had a choice: hike, or slide down on a metal track in these little plastic sleds. Faced with such choice, we started looking at each other, and eventually came to the conclusion, "Hell yeah! We can't not do it!" So we all paid the extra fee, 40 kuai I believe, and we slid down the mountain, curving through trees and past rock. I was a bit of a wuss driving, and was afraid of letting go of the brake, which caused the bald English bloke behind me to almost catch me and hit me from behind. At the bottom I apologized by saying "I'm sorry; I wouldn't fair well as a race car driver."

Lunch was served in the village at the base of the Wall, where we were treated to a typical Chinese style meal, comprised of several dishes served on a big lazy susan. I sat next to Jo. Our friend in the shorts was also at the table, again beating himself up for getting ripped off by some of the merchants in the village (he had paid 90 kuai for a deck of cards; recall that I bought a deck in Xi'an for 10 kuai and had just before lunch haggled my way into a t-shirt in the same village for 40 kuai, but it did take quite a bit of violent haggling). In my social-worker, want-to-be-shrink kind of way I told the kid to not beat himself, and just live and learn. I hope he appreciated that. He seemed to.

On the way back to the hostel in the bus I struck up a nice convo with a Canadian who had just finished a long stint in India taking photos in natural parks. My, he had some crazy travel stories that put mine to shame. Seems like India would be even more intense than China, but I still want to travel there someday.

That evening we got home and took some naps. I had agreed to meet up with Mike for a beer but it never transpired, so I think I just hung out in the hostel for a while and chatted with the folks there. But the climax of the day was undoubtedly the Wall. I had been there, seen it, and had a Hell of a time doing it. I knew Beijing had plenty to offer, but what was next? Plenty indeed.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Day 5: A Damn Cold Capitol

I woke the next morning bleary eyed and greasy, but rested. Train sleeps are never the best, of course, but they are at least sleep.

I waited an extra hour or so before we pulled into the station and meanwhile I watched the frozen farmland fly by outside. To tell the truth, I had been so enamored with Xi'an that I had hardly been thinking much about Beijing. It was the more marquee place of the two, the capitol of the largest country on earth, and currently, it seems the new focus of the whole world's attention as China emerges into a global power.

But at that moment to me it was just a city, like any other, and a damn cold one at that. I had heard that it was extremely cold in Beijing when I was in Xi'an, and I was mentally and physically prepared with long underwear and a strong will to have fun despite the weather. I just hoped it wasn't blizzarding, which it had been doing earlier. To my delight, it was perfectly clear when I arrived, not a cloud in the sky. But it was still damn cold, with terrible wind.

Being so pleased with my hostel experience in Xi'an, I booked Han Tang Inn's Beijing 'sister' hostel, called Tienanmen Sunrise. According the description I read it was a ten minute walk from Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City, a location that couldn't be more central. With my carefully written directions to the hostel from the train station (Beijing West, if I recall correctly), I clumsily found the right bus and stumbled on, huge backpack entail. As we rode along, I eyed my surroundings with my usual wide-eyed, childish excitement. When we passed Tienanmen, I jumped to the window to eye the Square, but as we passed, I wasn't sure if I had seen it or not. I asked the Chinese student I had been chatting with whether that was Tienanmen Square, and I thought that I gathered from her answer that it was NOT Tienanmen Square. But later I learned that it indeed was. Huh. The point is that I clearly had expectations for a grandiose sight in the Square, but it's really not quite that spectacular. Perhaps it never really was, and my expectations were too high to begin with, or perhaps it has changed over the years and no longer resembles the sight it once was, the sight my expectations were based on. I don't know; more on this topic to come.

When I got off the bus I followed my strict directions to the hostel, all the while being stung in the face by powerful wind. The sun was shining brightly, not a cloud in the sky, but the terrible, terrible wind raged on, the kind of wind that knocks the air out of your lungs and leaves you gasping for a solid breath. In retrospect, I am making this sound terrible, but I was afraid such weather would keep up and ruin my trip. Luckily it did not.

Eventually I marched into Tienanmen Sunrise hostel. The staff chuckled at me because my face was utterly bundled up. I was given my room, a dorm room with four beds. But luckily I was apparently the only one staying in the room. I knew that such luck was too good to last, and it wouldn't, but I enjoyed it for a day and night.

Now, to give a brief review, Tienanmen Sunrise was a nice hostel. I met plenty of cool people there and found its general layout conducive to fraternizing. However, my central problem with the place was, for us poor folks staying in the dorm, the bathroom and sink were very far removed from our immediate proximity; basically, they were out a door, down a hallway, and out in the open (the sink was anyway, luckily the toilets weren't). You're without a smidge of privacy when you're trying to wash your face and brush your teeth out in the open as hostel staff and fellow guests are constantly trudging by. And, the water in the sink was always utterly freezing cold. Like the fucking caveman I am I dove in, using it to wash my face and shave nonetheless, but hot water was an amenity that would have gone a long way in that weather.

After freshing up with shave and shower, I found the communal hostel computer to send notes home that I had safely arrived in Beijing. I noticed my one contact in Beijing was online, Zahlen Titcomb. He was a U of C graduate, the oldest of three notorious brothers who each successively captained the frisbee team. Thanks to a mutual friend, we became in contact and decided to meet up. Neither of us had a very long stay in the city, but luckily our voyages overlapped enough to hang out at least for one night.

Zahlen said to simply see the city first by climbing the hill in a park just north of the Forbidden City. Then, I would see most of the landmarks and decide which ones I wanted to see closer. Also, it was a great chance to get a feel for the city as a whole, because it happened to be so clear that day, a rare thing in China as you should know by now. He said I could join him and some friends for hot pot dinner later that evening, but in the meantime he was busy with work, and told me to get my ass out there and explore.

So I did. I didn't follow his plan verbatim, but I hit his hill after the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was, naturally, my first stop, and I must admit I found it to be a bit dry; its alcoves and sideways were not really open, and after seeing what appeared to be the same room for the emperor again and again, I quickly grew tired of it. While there, however, I met a lovely young fellow tourist from Hong Kong named Maggie. She was by herself as well, and we decided to be friends and see the sights together. Such occurrences are common on the backpacking trail.

Once finished with the Forbidden City, we climbed to the top of the hill in the park just north of it. Zahlen was right: it was a magnificent view of the city, and you could pick out many of the landmarks, like Tienamen Square, the Great Hall of the People, the new Opera Building, Beihai Park, and the Temple of Heaven. I told Maggie that I wanted to see Tienanmen Square, but it would require walking back around the whole Forbidden City, but she didn't mind. So we walked around, the whole two miles or so I think it was in total.

During the walk, chatting with Maggie, she told me that she traveled a lot by herself, but she was actually in town on business. What business is that? I asked her: only being the assistant to the Chow Yun Fat's makeup artist. No joke. If you want to see pictures I can prove it. I asked if I could meet him or get his autograph, but she politely said no. Damn, I don't think I'll ever get that close to meeting Chow Yun Fat again in my life, but who the Hell knows.

Should you feel the story is slowing at this point, I should note that I found 14 dollars. Seriously. As Maggie and I walked along the moat of the Forbidden City, we found three 100 Kuai notes (each one worth about 14 USD). She got two, I got one. Wouldn't you believe it? Nobody goes out for a day as a tourist and makes money on it.

Anyway, we eventually hit Tienanmen Square. As I said, it's large, and now seemingly more refined than I had pictured it, but it's not wildly grandiose. We snapped pictures here and there, and tried to make it into Mao's tomb but found that it had closed for the day. At this point, you should realize that being outside in weather like that for the day was beginning to take its toll, and I asked if Maggie wanted to go inside and get some tea. She did, but as soon as she answered yes, she got a call and found she had to go work. So we exchanged numbers and email in hopes to meet up again.

I walked back to my hostel and did the only thing I could do: took a nap. Traveling can take it out of you, and after a night spent on the train and a day out in the cold I wanted nothing more than to get warm in bed for a few hours.

When I awoke it was time to go meet up with Zahlen. I gchatted him a bit more before I left to get the location right. It was to be on Gui Street for those of you who know Beijing, a lovely street chuck full of restaurants where lanterns hang over sidewalks lighting your way. On the way there in the subway, I had my first of two encounters with the dreaded teahouse scam. If you're not familiar, it is a typical tourist trap in Beijing: essentially some young Chinese people see that you're white, and with their good English try to chat you up and then get you to follow them to a teahouse where things are crazy expensive and you get totally ripped off for tea. The same can happen with an art gallery, where the art is not great and really expensive. I noticed the girl who would later share the dorm room with me in the hostel fell victim to the art scam, but she was kind of an airhead and I wasn't surprised. It's just very common in Beijing and Shanghai too, I believe. I think a lot of young Beijingers are involved with it, just to make some extra money as they certainly get a cut from the teahouse when they bring folks in. Anyway, on the subway, two very nerdy, innocent looking girls started chatting with me, asking me where I was from, and whether I had been to the city before. They even got on the train with me. As we were going, one of them, who spook quite good English I should note, exclaimed to me "Darian! I think we should drink a coffee together!" I was sort of wishy-washy about saying no at first, and said something along the lines, "You know I really can't, I'm going to meet some friends." But such indecisive answer only elicited more encouraging from my new Chinese friends. They jabbed a few more times, and, realizing what was happening, I quickly became more resolute: I leaned into their faces and simply said sternly "The answer is NO." After that, they were dismayed, and quit talking to me pretty much altogether, getting off at the next subway stop.

When I arrived at the restaurant, I was the first to get there aside from Zahlen. I wasn't surprised; as I was a bit nervous and excited to have dinner with him, I tried extra hard to make it on time, beating out his more casual, lackadaisical friends.

Now, to be blunt, I didn't really know Zahlen very well at all. I had heard far more stories about him than had had actual conversations with him (Zahlen, should you ever read this, take that as you will). We only had met once before, in passing, introduced by the same mutual friend who set us up this time (by the way, her name is Stephanie and she's a sweetheart). Nonetheless, Zahlen was great, and after a bit of awkward conversation and feeling one another out at first, we indulged in a fantastic meal of hot pot, complete with different kinds of sliced meats, vegetables, and even duck toungues, with beer and baijiu to drink, lasting a few hours and getting us all quite full and buzzed. Zahlen's friends were the type I expected them to be: trendy, well educated ex-pats, and they were both very nice (I can't actually recall their names at the moment, but they were a couple, boy and girl who had lived in Beijing for a while). In the end, the joy was simply in getting to shoot the shit with some somewhat familiar faces again, after being cramped up in Jiaozuo for the past few months with same few people.

After hot pot we had a few drinks in a trendy little bar they knew, which was secluded, off the street, full of leather furniture and old books, and had two friendly cats and a dog to play with. It also had a great selection of whiskey. It is the type of place that could only exist in a big city like Beijing, and could only be there to serve the ex-pat community. But I'm not complaining. I relaxed with a Hoegaarden and chatted it up with my newfound friends.

After the bar, just Zahlen and I had more food at a restaurant near by. I was pretty buzzed, but I recall us having a nice, deep conversation. I think about the usual things UChicago alumni may have in common, such as people we both knew, reflections on our experiences, and plans for the future.

I took a cab home alone and found the hostel lobby pretty empty at that point. I got to my four bed dorm room and fell into a peaceful sleep, having it all to myself.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Photo Spectacular

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are some pictures to go along with my narration. I think they're nice, but the story truly starts and ends in each of my lengthy posts.

The Mighty China Trip

Day 4: Xi'an Swan Song

In the morning I was hungover again. I don't mean to beleaguer this detail or invoke pity, but such (slightly) altered state has an effect on achieving your tourist goals; when you're tired and hungover, it makes appreciating a thousand year old piece of sacred stone all the more difficult.

Anyway, sadly this was to be my last day with Trevor before we had to part ways. We were taking separate trains out of Xi'an, him back to Jiaozuo and myself on to Beijing. We had booked our tickets through the service available at the hostel. They make all the arrangements and you pay a small extra fee. For those of you who wonder, this is one clear example of how it's possible to comfortably travel across the Far East without a word of the local language. Behold, the preeminence of the English language.

With our last few hours (Trevor's train back to Jiaozuo left about 3 in the afternoon, mine left that night at 8) we decided to see the Great Mosque in the Muslim quarter. We had wandered through the Muslim quarter with the Aussie couple two days before. There must be a neighborhood like it in every tourist destination on the globe. I don't mean to detract from it's character, however, because it does have plenty of that, distinctly different from the rest of busy and bustling downtown Xi'an. Its streets are small and narrow, and a main central walk way extends straight through for about a kilometer, all the way lit with lanterns and bright lights. Every centimeter on the walkway is also chuck full of vendors selling all kinds of foods, candies, trinkets, and any other little doodad you can think of. On our way there, Trevor and I stopped at an army surplus shop and I bought a nice new black beanie, discarding my previous "Team Germany" one later to a German tourist at the hostel in Beijing who took it off my hands. This is a mundane detail, but you may notice if you've seen the pictures.

We hit the walkway as good little tourists do, casually observing all the things for sale, and telling ourselves to make only smart purchases; no frivolous tourist crap that just gathers dust on your mantel. Trevor and I went in together on some dried fruit, and bought some spicy peanuts and a deck of Communist China propaganda playing cards. But to get them at the price I wanted I had to haggle a bit, something I got pretty good at doing by the end of my trip. The asking price was 40 or 50 Kuai I believe, and I walked away with them for 10. You see, that is precisely the trick: to get them to go lower you simply just drop the item and walk away. This will cause them to panic and do something drastic, as they don't want to blow a sale with someone who actually may be interested. It will either cause them to physically grab you and pull you back, offering you less, which has happen to me, or chase after you down the street, at a dead sprint if necessary (this I observed happening to someone else in Hong Kong). It's just the little game you have to play, and usually it's actually quite fun, though it's purpose is obvious: to get a fat, uninformed tourist with cash to blow to pay too much.

We split from the main walkway and ventured down one of the side streets. The Muslim quarter is really not that big and can be pretty easily navigated. Trevor pointed out a tiny street, about 8 feet in width, which had been closed the night earlier. It had signs that said it would lead us to the Great Mosque. But along the sides of it were, of course, more shops, packed in tight with one another, as an overhanging fawning completely shielded the street from the elements. These were the real deal, high brow tourist shops with plenty of trendy counterfeit goods, such as Ralph Lauren sweaters, North Face wind breakers, and European club soccer jerseys.

Perhaps it was the nature of the cramped space, but these vendors were more bold and forceful; upon seeing that you're a Westerner, they bombard you with exclamations like "Hello. Shopping!" and "Very good... come and have a try!" This gets very tiring quickly, especially if you do see something you may actually want to buy, and are trying to think about it to yourself as someone solicits you loudly. Trevor and I only toyed with buying a book of Mao quotations, a ubiquitous tourist item is this country, but decided against it, although the shop's owner was a nice guy. By the time we hit the Mosque, I was awkwardly carrying a few different things, juggling them while scarfing spicy peanuts.

The Mosque itself was small and completely Chinese in style. It bears little resemblance to a Mosque with domes and minarets, and is really more a series of small temple shrines and arches in a large courtyard, not unlike the pagoda's shrines. The courtyard is quite beautiful, and very quiet. I enjoyed strolling through it and trying to fathom its age, which is somewhere in the vicinity of 1400 years, so yes, it's damn old. Trevor and I took separate paths around it, periodically meeting to discuss our separate findings and eventually hit the Mosques' end, a large prayer hall, where only Muslims could enter. I took joy in observing some teenage Chinese Muslims running late to prayer and throwing off their basketball high-tops before they entered the hall. A truly Xi'an scene.

After the Mosque we had a quiet lunch together in a small restaurant. Conversation was a bit light between us, as we were both thinking of our pending train rides alone and new travel objectives. But we were certainly sad to part: we had had an utter blast in Xi'an, seen it all and done it all together. Trevor said he toyed with the idea of buying a train ticket with me to Beijing, but simply couldn't due to his previous arrangements, arrangements that would eventually take him to Japan to meet his family. I would certainly miss his companionship, his sense of humor to appreciate the goofiness of foreign differences, and his conversation. And I would also miss his talent in Mandarin, as he often served as my translator. Therefore, I was a bit nervous to venture out on my own without him, though I quickly got used to things and made due with the little Chinese that I knew.

Back at the hostel, our things were packed and ready for us, as we had done our packing before and checked out in the morning. We sat around the lobby a few minutes, and then a hug saw Trevor off as he caught the bus to the train station without me. Again, I was sad to say goodbye, but I do love traveling on my own, not that he was in any way a hindrance. He was a delight.

I was tired and understandably so. I thought to myself that I'd seen all there is to see in Xi'an, and I'd just use the rest of the afternoon (my train was an overnight) to relax, which I did by watching half of the movie Avatar on DVD with the hostel staff. At one point, it gathered a small crowd of backpackers, but I never did finish it. I intend to in the near future.

I had dinner one last time from Glasses'. Glasses himself remembered my name, which was very charming because my name is pretty tough for the Chinese. I had a light piece of oil bread and a few chicken wings, and smoked a cigarette he gave me with him, no doubt a symbol of our mutual good will.

The bus to the train station was absolutely packed. I squeezed into the front, the very last passenger to get in, nearly pressed against the glass with my enormous backpack on my shoulders. I couldn't have been any more obvious.

The train station was crowded, too, as they always are. I waited in line standing up, all the seats being taken, and passed the time by befriending a group of Chinese college boys who spoke a bit of English. Only one of them was heading to Beijing like me and as they parted ways I was touched to see them send one another off for the long holiday break with hugs, smiles, and pats on the back. I noticed from his ticket that the kid on my train didn't have a sleeper like me, but a seat. Rough to do that overnight, I thought to myself, but in a week's time I would know exactly what it was like myself.

Once on board the train after pushing through the masses filing onto it, I found my bed and took my shoes off. It was on the bottom of the hard sleeper, which is by far the most convenient. Everyone around me seemed like happy middle class folk, but I didn't see anyone really worth attempting to make conversation with. So I put my trusty iPod on, wrapped myself up in the given blanket, and drifted off into an early sleep. I made sure to listen to Phish's "Train Song" as I faded out. What anticipation: I would wake up the next morning in Beijing.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Day 3: Cutting Through the Smog on a Bicycle Built for Two

The third day of our Xiannese (that's not a real word) adventure began with uncertainty. The previous night before bed Trevor and I discussed what we would do, and decided it would be Big Wild Goose Pagoda in the morning, lunch, and then probably a bike ride on the great city wall in the afternoon. At this point, we'd hit the Warriors, the biggest attraction, and now had some freedom to play around a bit.

This morning I was not as hung over as the previous and after our healthy breakfast of oranges and bananas we took a bus south, outside the downtown city wall to see the pagoda. As the title of this post might suggest, it was smoggy that day. Damn smoggy. I note this especially on this day because we were sight seeing, and in particular things that were tall and extended into the sky. I was afraid the smog would somewhat ruin our view and our pictures, and although I can't say our pictures were ruined, they could have been nicer. But the truth is, depending on where you are in China, it's pretty smoggy everyday, especially in the big cities, and especially in Henan. Pollution runs rampant in this country, and it boasts the most polluted city on the planet according to Time magazine, called Linfen, which isn't very far from where I live by the way. Basically, having a clear day completely free of clouds or smog tends to be pretty rare. This is one reason why I am not too keen on staying in this country for the long hall. Just try and blame me.

Regarding the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. However, I did have a vision in my head, something like a lone tower standing on the horizon, cutting through the faint fog.

I must report that the real pagoda is not entirely this romantic, though it and the temples around it were some of the most beautiful and ornate things I saw my entire trip. When we got off the bus, we had a bit of a walk ahead of us, straight through this country's newfound love of capitalist opportunity in the form of what could be called something like a touristy county fair, complete with small rides for children and games to win big stuffed animals. Simultaneously one of the pros and cons of the tourist industry. Central to this fair is a great water fountain, which we also passed, where I understand that their is a water-laser show sometimes at night, though unfortunately we missed such show during this visit.

After weeding our way through the countless stands to buy snacks and souvenirs, we smirked our way into the pagoda's entrance by passing ourselves off as students with our old college IDs and getting a nice discount. Inside, the pagoda was something like it had been in my vision: a loan tower, rising through the smog, its splendor unrivaled by any nearby modern high rises in view. To give credit where credit is due, I should thank the city of Xi'an for not building around the tower and ruining its picture-perfect location.

And the tower itself was not the sole focus of the site, but part of a quad of temple shrines, each depicting with ornate wood work and golden statues the life journeys of a particular Chinese monk, Xuanzang, who traveled to India and returned with Buddhist teachings.

On a tangential note, it made me want to learn more about the history of Buddhism in China. Because Buddhism did start in India and spread to China, it must have been individuals like Xuanzang who spread Buddhism through this cultural exchange. This may not seem so poignant in itself, but that the two great civilizations of China and India have been in such close proximity for thousands of years, yet seem to have exchanged ideas so little, is fascinating. Obviously they exchanged some, as Buddhism in China and the Far East is evidence of, but seemingly not much, though I certainly could be wrong. And I believe this inquiry is also topical, as China and India today see each other as such fierce competitors. Then again, I suppose the fact that they are separated by the Himalayas could explain everything really, especially the mutual antipathy. That's a joke.

Anyway, Trevor and I delved our minds deep into the Buddhist tradition by observing the small temple shrines around the foot of the pagoda, but when faced with the possibility of climbing the whole 7 stories or so to the top, we decided it wasn't worth the extra money it cost. So we took a few more pictures, hit the can, and then left to find a bus back downtown.

We got off such bus around the South Gate of the great city perimeter wall, and found a nice, local Chinese joint for some of that delicious Xiannese BBQ. It wasn't as good as Glasses', but it refueled us for the next activity: riding bikes around the entire city wall.

Per the advice given to me by my English friend, the south gate was the place to enter the wall. At first such entrance appeared to be free of charge, but then we quickly encountered someone working the booth, and found that just getting on the wall would cost 40 Kuai each. Once on top of the wall we walked about 500 meters before we found a place to rent bikes. The price was pretty reasonable, and gave us 100 minutes with the bikes. I recalled reading that it would take about 90 minutes to ride around the whole city wall, so we set off with haste. Note to reader: although the title of this post implies Trevor and I were on a two-seater bike, we were not. We each had our own, although we did see a two-seater for rent and toyed with the idea of getting it. Well, maybe next time.

What followed was a truly fun travel experience, the kind of which I'll never forget. Trevor and I just made our way around the entire wall, chatting and pointing out various landmarks, and stopping to take a pictures. One really fun feature of the wall is that it was not entirely flat, but periodically has steep ramps that must be climbed vigorously on the way up and send the rider flying along with the help of gravity on the way down. Trevor and I reminisced about it later, and he told me it was one of his favorite travel experiences.

That night, we went to our hostel's sister hostel, which is bigger and bolder than our own, and still quaint, yet not as peaceful. Next door below it was one of the trendiest bars in Xi'an, frequented by locals and ex-pats alike. We met Nolan there and after stepping in realized it was clearly the place to be: packed full of people and tasteful music, and of course, it had all those esoteric decorations and leather-bound furniture essential to a trendy bar catering to westerners in China (I found similar establishments in Beijing and Shenzhen). I also saw Jia Jia again, although she was next door working in the hostel, running the night shift. I did some more harmless flirting with her, and me, Trevor, and Nolan even brought her back some food when we got a late night snack. It was a good evening, although I was pretty pissed off when the pour I got on my order of Red Label was hardly even a shot's worth. Nolan, faced with the same dilemma, went on an unsuccessful trip back to the bartender to see if he could get us a few more swallows of whiskey. He came back with the simple answer of "Sorry boys, welcome to China."

Walking home with Trevor that night, he said to me that him and Nolan had talked about me when I got up, and they agreed I would come around and decide to stay in China for the long term. With a bit of attitude granted by alcohol's consumption, I was I got a bit defensive and told Trevor condescendingly that such observation was an obvious one, and that I was clearly having a blast, and that I too could see myself there longer, but certainly not in Jiaozuo. We settled on the fact that I was undecided, and the future was unwritten for both us.

To this day, I'm still pondering such things. Maybe the fun I was having in Xi'an was just general traveling fun and not so unique to China, but simply unique to backpacking. Or maybe it is truly the thrill of the East, being a foreigner here, and having nothing but novel experiences with my first go round. Nolan did say something else, and that was if you want to try some new places, go ahead and explore them. You can always come back.

I suppose only time will tell.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

In the Meantime.. A Very Bitter Story

Well, obviously my grand goal of 30 entries in 30 days has not panned out exactly as planned. But, like Chairman Mao said of the Cultural Revolution, some of details didn't work out, but the overall aim was true. So, I won't let a few setbacks haunt me.

Today, I'm writing a simple, recent story that interrupts the current storyline of my cross country trip. We'll resume that storyline after this, but there is just something that I need to get off my chest. Basically, it's how even the simplest tasks in this country that require a bit of administrative work can be very, very difficult. It sucks.

The story begins with the fact that I have to wire my uncle some money. It's money I owed him for the plane trip here, because he fronted it and the university reimbursed me. It ended up being several hundred dollars more than it should of been because the school made me change the international flight after I already had it booked, but that's another issue entirely for me to be mad about, which, to be blunt, I still am.

Now, I had sent money back home once before, and it wasn't easy then. But that time I had a Chinese friend to help me, and although it took much longer than it seemingly should have, it got done in the end by sending it via her name. So this time, I decided to follow the same steps as last time. Naturally, I brought Brandon with me because his fluent Mandarin would no doubt be essential to get this darn thing done.

I first went and withdrew the money from my back, then took it to another bank to be exchanged into US Dollars, the very same steps I had taken before. Then, we went to a third bank, the Postal Savings Bank of China, where there was a Western Union which I knew worked from before. But getting a late start on the day as one is known to do without having any real structure in their life, as I currently do not, we didn't get to the bank till about 4:45pm, and after we waited for a teller, it was nearly 5:00. The teller said we could send the money, just come back tomorrow after the bank opens at 9:00am and bring a passport, because the system was about to shut down at 5:00pm. Fine, we thought, as long as we could come back tomorrow and it would work.

So the next day we did come back. This time we got there at about 12:30pm. However, I was afraid that, because places in China often resolutely shut down in the middle of the day for a long lunch break from 12:00-2:30pm and turn away anyone who wants their business, we would have to come back several hours later. Sadly, I was right, and they told us to come back at 3:00. Obviously, I was getting quite pissed at this point, but I had no choice. So Brandon and I parted ways and agreed to meet back at the bank at 3:00 later that day.

When we got back, wouldn't you know what they told us? To leave and come back again, of course. Because there was a big line of TWO people in front of us, we had to come back in an hour. By then, it would be 4:30, and because as we learned yesterday that this goddamn, mighty "system" shuts down at 5:00pm sharp, I was afraid I wasn't going to get the money sent this day either.

You see, the thing about living in China is that in the case where you don't know someone or aren't connected well with whatever simple service like this you'd like to receive, you have to kick and scream and shout just to get people to do their goddamn jobs. I wish I was kidding or exaggerating, but I assure you, I am not. You actually see people doing this from from time to time, patrons who are causing a big scene, yelling vehemently at employees as a small crowd gathers and looks on. It's all too common in this country because jobs that people are supposed to do simply don't get done.

Anyway, so we returned at 4:30 and had to continue to wait. From the start, Brandon and I found it strange that when we did walk in, a janitor lady in a blue jumpsuit had asked us what we needed and then barked the orders at the regular employees in fancy business clothes. This was a comical sight and we had a good laugh, but I guess the damn janitor lady has worked their a while and actually knew what the Hell she was doing, unlike most of the other staff.

So finally, after filling out the proper forms, we waited in line at the same teller we were always told to talk to. But nothing happened, and the minutes ticked by, and soon it was about 5:00. I said to Brandon, "We're not going to get it done today. These assholes will find a way to fuck it up again." Eventually, the teller, a young woman, began to help us. And, to her credit, she actually seemed to care about what she was doing and she genuinely seemed to be trying to get the transaction done quickly, even though it was well past 5:00 at this point. (Evidently the mighty "system" has more flexible hours than we were initially told. What a surprise.) And it did seem to be working; we were getting the details into the system, slowly but surely: "Yes, it's Hutchinson, Kansas we're sending the money to. H-U-T-C-H-I-N-S-O-N (Ah, Kansas: home of my father's ancestors and the place of my birth)." But I could tell: it had been too long since something went wrong there. We were due for another hold up, and, just as we were nearly finished with the transaction, and after we'd worked on the details for about an hour, it was only then that the staff realized that the passport would not work in, sigh, the mighty "system." Some bureaucratic, inflexible, minor detail was preventing us from sending the goddamn money after we'd been through all of that.

I started to throw a bit of fit, slamming my wallet down on the table and shouting lightly at the staff in English (they didn't understand my words of course, but I thought my demeanor would make sense). After a bit more conversing, Brandon said that we were being stubborn, and forcing them to try something else. I didn't have much hope for it, but it was a shot, and of course it failed. In the end, my passport just wasn't the proper ID to send the money. I evidently couldn't send the damn money as an American. We needed a Chinese form of ID and we asked the teller if we could use hers, but of course said she couldn't, company policy. Essentially, I needed to be a Chinese person to send money to America.

So I did as I was told, and the next day I came back with my Chinese grad student friend, and told her to bring her ID. We walked into the bank at the bright and early hour of 10:30 the next morning. But after a 10 second conversation with a staff member, I could tell something was wrong. Oh, wouldn't you know it? The "system" was down all of a sudden. We had to try back on March 2nd. MARCH FUCKING 2ND. Jesus fucking Christ.

At that instant, I threw another fit, making a scene, shouting "Yesterday the goddamn system was working fine! Now we have to come back?!" I promptly stormed out as my friend stayed behind an extra minute or so to receive the bank worker's apology.

Me and the Chinese friend tried a few other banks that morning, but found the processes at those to be even more confusing, and more importantly, a lot more expensive. I guess there was truly a reason I was going to this same Postal Savings Bank all along: even though it was some of the worst goddamn service I'd ever experienced, it was still the best option we had.

Because my uncle is not dying for the money, I have decided to just wait until March 2. And I assume things probably won't even get done on that day.

In closing, I'll just say fuck: perhaps I'm being too bitter and funneling a few different frustrations into this one incident, but Christ, sometimes I get very sick of this country. I guess it happens to anyone, in fact I know positively that it does. And not that America's administrative systems aren't horribly bureaucratic themselves, it is incidents like this, and many more, that do make me proud to be an American. Hopefully, when I come home again, I will appreciate things in the US a little bit more.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day 2: Ancient Romanticism and the Whimsy of Tourism

I awoke in the morning with a slight hangover, and I assumed the headache would worsen throughout the day, which it did. We had to be downstairs for our tour pickup around 9am, and we each slowly rolled out of bed. I think I was first to shower, and then I headed downstairs in search of a light breakfast.

The hostel had a western kitchen with a menu that really wasn't too bad or overpriced, just fried eggs, ham, and toast for breakfast, and burgers and stuff in the evening. But, being the anti-touristy, necessarily explorative foodie that I am, I refused to acquiesce to such familiar restaurant cuisine. So I shot out the door in search of some fruit stand, knowing I only had a few minutes to spare before our van would arrive for the tour. I turned left, but found only a convenient store with no fruit, so I settled on a cup of instant noodles, which was way too acidic and chuck full of sodium for my hungover stomach to enjoy. And when our tour guide arrived tp pick us up, I wasn't finished, but she allowed me to bring the cup on board, making me the comic relief for all the travelers already on board. Had I turned right when I exited the hostel, I would have found two fruit stands easily which we observed as the bus drove away. Naturally I made careful note to patronize these later.

The bus was nearly full when Trevor and I got in. Let me start off by saying that if you haven't been on a budget, English guided tour in the East before, these things are as goofy, informal, and conducive to making friends as, well, hardly anything I've experienced before. The tour guide introduced herself: a cute, twentysomething Chinese girl whose English was pretty good, though naturally not impeccable (Chinese ESL speakers are very rarely impeccable). Her name was Jia Jia, and her and I quickly started off on a semi-flirtatious exchange where she said she was single, and I factitiously offered to buy her a drink. Jia Jia invited us all to introduce ourselves, and the van was full of the usual mixture of Australians, Canadians, families and friends. Come to think of it, I believe Trevor and I were the only two actually there from the US. I was sitting next to a man from Quebec, who though at first was quite quiet, turned out to be a real joker, taking jabs at me as the trip wore on. And we also immediately hit it off with, as he introduced himself, "the former executive chef at the Canadian embassy in Beijing." His name was a Nolan, a Canadian East Asian ex-pat for years, who currently resides in Shanghai with his Hong Konger wife.

Our first stop was nothing but a little, touristy shop where we would allegedly "get to see how they made the warriors," but also be able to wade through room after room of over-priced goods and life-size replicas of the statues. And they didn't just have Warrior statues, they had everything from jade coffee tables, Afghan rugs, and hand carved furniture. Were I a wealthy American businessmen, which I'll most likely never be, I'd maybe buy something small there, made of jade (at one point I blatted out "I love Jade!" to the Quebecqois, who couldn't stop laughing at my exclamation). Basically, bringing us budget tourists there didn't seem to make much sense to me, we just didn't have the money to spend on frivolous crap. I think the tour producers obviously get a cut from that place by making it a stop on the tour.

And then we were off to see the Terracotta Warriors, famous, bold and true. On our way there, having the advent of some practice with each other, conversation livened up in the van, and when we arrived, we were all one big, happy family. Like I said, such is the way with these small, budget tours for westerners in Asia. Try one, they're a blast.

Now, to finally see the Warriors, you must walk a few hundred meters up a hill and quite literally through a fuck storm of tourist culture and people hawking things to you forcefully. These are the cheap souvenir stands, much cheaper than the "official" ones you'd buy inside the Warrior complex. I made the mistake of acknowledging a boy who wanted me to exchange the Euros he had in his hands for yuan. Upon doing this he followed me quite persistently then latched on to someone else in the group. But I noticed that the buildings and stands looked quite nice and new, and Nolan confirmed that they were. He said he'd been there only 5 years prior, and then there was nothing between the parking lot and the Warriors except an empty dirt road. Dynamic China.

Jia Jia led the tour group as best she could, but many of us strayed out on our own. I went back and forth, amused that Jia Jia's symbol of authority to get our attention was a big flower she would hold up when she was going to inform of us something about the Warriors.

The first thing to see is the cast iron chariots found near the Warriors. They are utterly remarkable for their complexity considering their age. The ancient Chinese truly did live in an advanced society, technologically at least, and in great comfort compared to most of civilization at that time. Then, after the chariots is Pit 3, an expansive space the size of an aircraft hanger. But here, the dirt roof above the Warriors has collapsed, and one can merely observe their bits and pieces, though there are a lot of them.

One funny thing I recall about visiting Pit 3 is that as you walk through the lobby, you get to see the man who once owned the plot of land the Warriors were discovered on. The story goes that, upon their discovery, he promptly sold the land to the government for only 10 Yuan, which is less than $1.50. But the guy, who doesn't speak English, or Mandarin that well I assume (he probably knows only a regional dialect without much of an education) is there, just sitting there. I suppose I don't blame him for trying to live an easier life on the fame granted him with such a find, but it's really strange when you consider his purpose there. You also can't photograph him. Honestly, it feels like a human exhibit in a museum. Jia Jia pointed him out to us, and none of us knew what to do, so I awkwardly ventured out first to shake his hand, then everyone else did. Anyway, this is just my sentiment, but I got the distinct feeling something like that wouldn't fly in the US. Then again, perhaps it might.

Next is Pit 2, where you can see plenty of the real, life-sized Warriors who appear to be the important generals and what not, though there are only a few of them. Maybe around 100. And then, there is the real deal: Pit 1. Jia Jia led us in this order, 3-2-1, saying she was saving best for last. Pit 1 is what you've seen all the pictures of, the 1000s of life-size Warriors, facing east, each different than the next. Utterly amazing.

I stared at these Warriors for an extra long time, repeatedly going back to look after Jia Jia said she'd wait. Afterward, I told the other people in the tour group that I had had a "moment" looking at them. They all laughed, but I'm trying to articulate what was really going through my head. So I'm not sure really what to call it, whether I was truly captivated with a romantic idea of what the Warriors seemed to represent, or I was just tired, hungover, and in the mood to just space out and day-dream. I'd like to believe that I was thinking something deep, something along the lines of considering humankind's greatest accomplishments, and that maybe we weren't, or aren't, such vicious beasts and warmongers, but instead at heart we are capable of amazing works, deeds, and beauty. OK, so the Terracotta Warriors are just that: WARRIORS meant to fight and defend. But you could easily say there is virtue in this; they are loyal, defending their master emperor. But I prefer to focus on the achievement that is their construction. What dedication and craftsmanship. All for the afterlife. Maybe it's a testament to the great mystery that we all must face alone: death. Even this emperor was plagued by what he thought was up there in the sky, and he was damn well determined to be prepared, bringing a whole army with him.

After the tour we had lunch and then exchanged numbers with Nolan and a few others to meet up later. At lunch, I was advised by my compatriots to drink more beer to rid me of my hangover and that this was called "hair of the dog," something I'd never heard before. And naturally, I bid Jia Jia goodbye hoping to see her again.

In the hostel room I realized that "hair of the dog" was not working and that I should slam a bunch of water and then take a nap, which we did. In the evening, Trevor and I met up with our Aussie friends for dinner, which consisted of a Xi'an specialty: a bowl of the thick, Xi'an bread patties, torn up by your own hands, and soaked in mutton stock. It was pretty darn good, and so was the conversation. Then we walked around and found a nice, quiet Chinese bar where I could get a drink of whiskey, something I had been craving, and watch a Korean movie on the wall's flat screen TV.

Though at one point, in chatting with the Aussies, I briefly may have offended their religious convictions. I was blabbing about the amazing workmanship of the Warriors, wondering how the Chinese could have done that so long ago. The Aussie, Mike, said, "Well, it depends on how old you think the earth is." To which I quickly replied with, "Don't tell me you're a Creationist." Mike said, "Is there a problem with that?" To which I just chuckled, said no, and quaintly apologized if I had offended him. Funny. The only reflection I can make on that story is that there are limitless cultural misunderstanding that can happen when you're abroad, but that was probably the last one I thought I'd run into. I guess you never can tell.

Anyway, Trevor and I headed back, discussed what was on the agenda for the next day, and then chatted the night away till it was sleep time. I suppose I may have left Trevor out of this day's details, but I was really glad to have him there, and we were getting along great, which can be difficult when traveling.

And I feel it goes without saying that the day had also been another blast. That will go without saying a lot on this trip.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Day 1 Continues: The Joy of Novel Surroundings

The train ride was cold at first, as many places in this country are poorly insulated and people hang around all day inside but in their winter layers and down jackets. But things warmed up as we sped along. What helped the most was that I had a bed to lay down in and get cozy. In fact, I didn't really have a choice; I could lay down in bed, or hope to snag a spot in the lone folding chair next to the window, which was usually taken. (If you have ever traveled in a hard-sleeper train in China, you'll understand. If not, google it if you're curious to see pictures.) So I laid back, and in the middle cot, with a view of the window, I watched the countryside and tiny farming communities pass by.

Poor Trevor had the top bunk, which he had to wiggle and waggle his 6'4'', 250 pound frame into. I think once up there he didn't really want to trouble getting down, so he only changed positions a few times the whole 7 hours of train ride. He said he had privacy there, but he couldn't see out of the window, despite the fact that I repeatedly and excitedly pointed out interesting views, such as rocky slopes and foothills, to which even with his best effort of hanging his head down well below his bed, he couldn't really see. I also don't think he had any music player like I did. He just had a book of elementary Japanese to study in preparation for his trip to Japan that was to be a few weeks later. Seems like that'd be pretty boring to me.

I started getting hungry a few hours into the ride. I could've totally used a banana or some peanuts. "You know," I said, "I could really go for a banana right now to quench my hunger, you asshole." "Well," Trevor said, "You should have let me go back for them." "You shouldn't have forgotten them!" So we did all we could do: we bought cups of instant ramen noodles from the over priced train vendors like everyone else and made them with the hot water tap. Hot water in this country seems to be its own staple commodity. Even the peasants of China have a right to boiling hot, drinkable water to make instant noodles and tea whatever the circumstance. They seem to think drinking cold water or beverages in the winter is a truly dangerous act, and hot water will cure whatever may ail you in the winter months.

And so the train ride wore on. Trevor and I passed the time later as it grew dark by me reading passages out of my mediocre travel book to him aloud, inciting little known facts about China, such as that one can garner the death penalty for poaching a panda. I guess that may not surprise you if you're familiar with China's obsession with its great pandas. And of course, we had to get beers when we saw they were for sale by the vendors. The name of this brand of beer was new to me and delightfully playful: written on the bottle in English, the beer was evidently called "Let's." Naturally, Trevor and I realized the slogan possibilities with "Let's" were limitless: "Say, what should we do, Steve?" "I think you know the answer to that Jim..." Together: "Let's! (have a beer, or what have you)"

Outside the train it had grown completely dark, and with each stop I got more excited. I packed up my things and put my pack on a half hour early. Trevor, whose knowledge of Chinese is quite good, kept saying with each stop "no, this isn't Xi'an." But finally we were there. We had arrived. So with our 'Local Lions' over our shoulders we got off the train with the crowd and made our way through the train station's corridors over its many lines of track. We stepped out into the open plaza of Xi'an to large, waiting crowds and bright neon lights. I immediately saw finely the restored section of the famous Xi'an city wall, carrying neon lights and flags to welcome visitors fresh off the train. Yes, we had arrived, and I felt great.

Ask Trevor yourself, should you ever meet him. I was like a kid in a candy store. Elation is the word I've described it to most of my friends as. I just felt so great to be in a new big city, to be out of Jiaozuo, to be where people were mostly well educated with style, and definitely not so unused to foreigners. Hell, even the recurrent fast food chains, such as Subway and Dairy Queen made me happy, just to see them and have the chance to patronize their mediocre food. even though they usually instill me with scorn. We had made it, we had our hostel booked, and we were overflowing with that novel joy one feels at the sight of someplace new, full of possibility, and unspoiled by not a single disappointing moment or experience.

As I ranted on and on to Trevor, he realized he had clearly been made de facto navigator. He said we needed a certain bus, which we hopped on easily. The bus quickly filled up with fashionable young people, many of them well-dressed pretty girls who took notice of Trevor and I, the white people on board. Another perk of Xi'an, or any big metropolis for that matter: the girls are prettier.

We got off the bus where we thought the hostel would be a bit of walk away. Of course a walk through the Xi'an city lights sounded like heaven to me at that point, but after walking for about half an hour, we realized we were a bit lost, or at least couldn't find our destination. Eventually, we found it's small entrance, albeit boarded up and empty. A sign posted said it had been moved several blocks away to a new location which Trevor could not for the life of him seem to locate on a map. I said right it down and we'll just take a cab, which we did.

It turned out the new location of the hostel was tucked away, deep in a side street. We found it, and it was damn nice. It was called Han Tang Inn, and should you ever be in Xi'an, I highly recommend it. It has a cozy, well decorated interior with a small bar, and even a house kitten (it will probably be a cat by the time you visit, should you make it there yourself). Its small bar area was filled with a table of westerners, English, Aussies, and I think a few Dutch. Though as excited as we were to join in the constant mingling party that youth hostels always are, we took of down the street for some grub.

About 50 meters from Han Tang Inn sat a little place called "Glasses' BBQ" or something to that effect. Trevor told me the sign said "Glasses" and we didn't know why. What followed can only be called a shit show of delicious Xi'an barbecued meat, vegetables smothered in sauce, and a ridiculous banter between a table full of three drunk guys from Xi'an, and Trevor and I, slowly but surely catching up to their level of intoxication. I swear to god we toasted to "America. China. Friendship." a million goddamn times. And when toasting in China, one downs the small plastic cup of beer that comes customary with beer in restaurants, so it gets you drunk, but it's a sloppy beer-drunk. So the company was a bit unrefined, but hams like Trevor and I ate it right up. Our loud, obnoxious back and forth escalated steadily as the night wore on. But best of all, the food was also fantastic. We took several pictures with the guys and even hugged and acted out some Bruce Lee movies... at least I think we did. Of course, the small staff of the restaurant laughed as they continued to bring us rounds of beers, many of which were compliments of our new friends. And as we left, we found out why the place was called "Glasses'": the owner and BBQ master wore black framed glasses. "Glasses" was apparently his nickname. Trevor and I would return to "Glasses'" a few times in Xi'an. I was even told later by my hostel host that the place was famous in Xi'an. I doubt that's true, but with food like that, it very well could be.

After the shenanigans and getting our drunk friends' business cards and even cell phone numbers, we stumbled into the hostel and found the small party still going in the lobby. With plenty of liquid confidence in our bellies, we brashly joined conversation and met a couple Aussies who we agreed to have dinner with the next night, after our tour of the Warriors (within about half an hour of checking into the hostel, we decidedly we had to do the hostel tour of the Terracotta Warriors. We would not regret it).

Our room was well furnished, cozy, and beds were very comfortable. It caused one to pass out like a rock and sleep well. And, it was private: just for the two of us, a luxury that I would not have again the rest of my trip alone staying in dorms. We praised the hostel and our room's comfort a bit before bed, and as I lay in bed for the three minutes my buzzing head had before it drifted off, I think I said to Trevor that I didn't want to go back to Jiaozuo. Obviously, I'm back, but maybe it was that I didn't want to leave China. Who knows, anyone can have a good day and a bad day, and good days make it easy to say you want to be somewhere. Whatever the future holds, for certain, this had been a good day.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Day 1...

Fuck. I've already screwed up on the promise I made to myself. In the first 48 hours of planning to make an entry each day in this blog, I've already missed one. Forgive me. We'll chalk it up to not being used to the regularity of posting each day... yeah, that's it. I've just got to get into a routine, get into the swing of things. Anywho...
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Day 1 of the trip started with an early wake up. When I'm anticipating something I always wake well before more alarm. Or if I do wake up with the alarm, I have set it way too early and after hurriedly doing my morning activities I've well planned out the night before, I have at least half hour of free time.

In this case, I got up, having most of my things packed and ready to go. I blame the fact that I am still a novice backpacker for packing way too much. I had my pack stuffed full of a different clothing ensemble for each day of the week. That may not sound like much, but I assure you it is way too much for a three week trip of staying in shabby hostels and hanging with other nappy travelers. My backpack was new, recently purchased at the local flea market in Jiaozuo for 120 kuai (20 USD for a huge backpack while the good ones in the market cost several hundred). Trevor was so impressed with the find that he got one too. And though the packs were nice, made by "Local Lion", a brand I'd naturally never heard of, but had a likable name and comical appeal, we knew that for that price, they could not be extra sturdy or last forever. Nevertheless, I had mine chucked full of clothes, filled to the brim with little room for extra things to acquire along the way. Another mistake I made that I was bound to regret.

Trevor, my fellow English teacher and travel companion to Xi'an, and I were to meet for breakfast in the student cafeteria before our big set-sail. Though after calling him, he told me we'd meet half an hour later when we planned to catch the bus. He didn't have time for breakfast. Evidently, his nerves were not so jangled like mine and allowed him to take the time to sleep in a bit. I was jealous of this fact, but also determined to have a good breakfast with some protein, albeit alone.

So I swung my pack over my shoulder, double checked that all my appliances were turned off, including my gas and water cooler, and closed the door on my apartment for the next three weeks. My pack was large, cumbersome, and protruded nearly 2 feet out from my back, making my already spacious frame that much more bulky and awkward among the thin and shortened Chinese population. I thought that this would earn me even more starring than usual, but whatever? It's getting to be the traveling home season around here, classes are ending for the long winter break, and I'm clearly on my way out. I thought the students would more or less understand that, and I think they did.

After enjoying a quick meal of bijiemo and hardboiled eggs at the cafetorium, as we affectionately refer to it, I met up with Trevor and we headed for the campus gate, and three weeks of freedom. I had taken special care the previous day to buy some snacks for the train ride, such as bananas and peanuts. Because I was already weighed down well enough, I had given these to Trevor to carry. Though at first glance of him he did not seem to be carrying them.

"Where are the snacks for the train, dude?" I asked him.
"Goddamnit," he said, knowingly making a simple mistake. "Should I go back?"
"No," I said. "We'll live without them and I want to get on the road." I suppose it was my will to leave that place that pushed me onward, although going back to get the snacks would have been a simple matter and not taken long enough to delay us. But we pressed on.

Our original plan was to catch a bus, leaving from our smaller town, Jiaozuo, to the capital of the province, Zhengzhou, where the population was about ten million. Such buses passed by campus picking up students routinely, we had thought, and Trevor had even done specific research days before inquiring as to when the bus would arrive and how much it would cost.

But although our plan was carefully laid out and set to take this bus, that day we said to Hell with it. Instead, we found human couriers that are all too common in China. Outside campus, after crossing the main road that we were hoping to catch the bus on, we were solicited by some middle-aged men with beige minivans. Trevor and I with our backpacks were clearly traveling, and they said they'd take us to Zhengzhou, each for 25 kuai. Trevor and I each looked at the shady minivans in somewhat disarray then looked at each other. Trevor said, "This may very well be trap a to steal our organs and sell them for a premium. But I'm cool with it if you are." I said, "Let's do it." So we did, and hopped into the van with some other college students.

After waiting about ten minutes, the van took off. But it was clearly not heading in the direction of Zhengzhou. Instead, it headed back into Jiaozuo where on some side street we parked and waited for something. I had no idea what. For about ten minutes we stalled, not knowing what the hold up was, when another middle-aged man who obviously knew our driver arrived. He came walking out of an apartment building, got into the van, where there wasn't really room for him, and then proceeded to argue with the driver for five minutes, only to get back out of the van and walk way. Then we left and headed back to campus. WTF? you be thinking. Well, to typical American me with my American expectations, this would be considered strange. But the me that has lived in China long enough knew that this was just part of the great show that was living a lower middle-class life in China.

As our van pulled away, I hoped we would finally head straight to Zhengzhou. That is where we had paid our drive to take us, after all. And, at first, we seemingly did, but before so we made another stop on the HPU campus. There, we packed more and more people into our already cramped minivan. As more people came, we ran completely out of seats. Upon realizing this I thought "Good. Let's see them fit more people in now." But they could. They simply pulled some tiny, folding stools out from underneath the seats and easily converted a minivan, whose capacity was probably about 8, to 15. This did not please one of our passengers who had to sit on a stool, an older woman who was clearly university staff and not a student. She started pitching a fit with driver as we headed for Zhenzhou, to which he rebutted to by threatening to drop her off on the roadside. I suppose it was a good business tactic for him, but to her credit, it appeared that she got her fare dropped by 5 or 10 kuai. Not much in the grand scheme of things, but something, I suppose. The driver made the rest of us pay mid-trip. That way, had we refused to pay or didn't have the money, I guess he could just drop us off on the highway in the middle of nowhere. Also, that way we couldn't just bolt upon arriving in Zhengzhou.

The drive to Zhengzhou is about an hour and a half. Eventually, we arrived and pulled into the ugly, over crowded, industrial playground that is Zhengzhou. The train station is huge and crowded, but although my defenses were up extra high because I had been lectured about thieves and scammers before my trip by both Chinese and ex-pats alike, I really didn't meet or perceive any shady characters at all as we walked around and got our bearings.

With the advent of the private courier minivan, we were quite early, and waited in the local McDonald's. We each had a greasy meal, and it was there that I saw new white people, honest-to-God Americans, other than my fellow university teachers, for the first time in months. Some deep social instinct (made it's not instinct, but social conditioning? Anyway, call it what you will) pushed me to strike up a whimsy conversation, which I'm so good at. They were just a couple, living in Zhengzhou and heading to Beijing for the weekend then coming right back. Sigh. I met some new people. Good stuff for me. Not that I minded meeting Chinese college kids all the time, in fact I adored it, but it was a breath of fresh air to at least shoot the shit with some people who share my cultural background.

Finished with McDonald's we made our way into the train station. Of course there were a lot of people to sift through. There never isn't in China, but getting through security was simple; it seemed more of a pretense than anything, and we made it to our gate and waited. At first glance at the waiting area, I stood in awe of the shear number of folk just waiting for trains. Luckily I had the experience of Trevor to issue some perspective on the moment. "Welcome to a big city in China," he said. Crowds of this overwhelming size where to be the norm for the next few weeks.

We still had to wait an hour for our train, but boarding began well before departure. We started filing toward the train with everybody else heading for Xi'an, and at that point I felt no travel anxiety whatsoever. We had a couple of hard sleeper beds waiting for us, even though we were only traveling on the train for a day, and we found them pretty handily. The rush to the train was over. Only a peaceful ride awaited us.

I got settled in my middle bunk pretty awkwardly, it being my first time. I climbed the small ladder and crawled onto the small bed with my shoes on and my backpack stuffed next to my legs. I felt the strange need to hold onto my luggage in my bunk as the train traveled. This had also been recommended to me by other ex-pats experienced with China train travel. But after about 5 minutes of tossing and turning and trying to get comfortable with my huge pack on my bed with me, I simply stacked it with the other luggage where it was completely safe. And a few minutes later, a conductor passed by and told me to take my shoes off. That affirmed that there was really nothing to do but get comfortable, relax, and enjoy the train ride.

And then the train set off. We were heading to Xi'an and we'd be there in about 7 hours (it was 1:30 in the afternoon when the train left Zhengzhou). If things went according to plan, I wouldn't see Jiaozuo for weeks. Needless to say, I had that overwhelming anticipation of coming joy, like a child on Christmas Eve. But I didn't need to be greeted with fancy shops or a city full of western amenities. I was already overjoyed and in the best of spirits. I wanted an adventure and I was having one.

So I laid back, put my iPod earphones in, looked out the window, and waited for our arrival in Xi'an.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

30 Days Start Now

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." - F. Scott Fitzgerald's closing line to The Great Gatsby.

I begin this long awaited post with a salute to one of the all-time great authors of American literature by quoting the closing line to his classic work of fiction, "The Great Gatsby." If you're familiar with the work, you won't need me to tell you that one of its most central themes is the role our memories play in our lives. They push us, torture us, and delight us, yet as is the truth Gatsby must face, they are lost forever, and can never be relived or returned to.

Much of this blog is about reflection, I've noticed. I suppose most blogs often are. And so with the coming days (I have a lot of free time on my hands at the moment, and I'm aiming to fill it with productive activities, if not also cathartic ones such as writing in this blog) I intend to reflect on the experiences of the past month in my life. This month has been eventful for me; it has seen me travel around China, my current home, thousands of miles to different major hubs around this expansive nation. And for the most part, I did it alone, on my own. And not to boast, but considering I don't speak Chinese very well and have never been to these places before, I am most proud of my travel accomplishments. And, of course, it was an utter blast.

Thus, I have my goal set and I intend to reach it: for the next 30 days I intend to post a story, anecdote, and/or brief essay on this blog. This will no doubt be a challenge for me. Evidence of this fact can be discovered by merely scrolling down the page and observing the dates of each post and how infrequently they appear. To pass the buck around a bit, I do have censorship issues to deal with unique to this society, but I have now overcome them and nothing should stand in my way.

But there is another challenge concurrent with this goal. In documenting my trip and its magical Darian stories, I must use a new writing style that I'm certain I will not fully grasp to begin with: personal narrative. Of course I love stories, I like reading stories, I like being told stories, and I like watching stories in movies, but this will be first crack at writing them with regularity. You may realize the posts on this blog are always essays. So wish me luck.

Anyway, this dribble has been nothing but a prelude to the real meat. Without further ado, I shall begin the story telling. I imagine that's what everyone really wants.